Theodor Kallifatidis: Masters and Peasants

Kallifatidis, Theodor (1977), Masters and Peasants, Doubleday
[Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal]
ISBN 0-385-09916-9

Kallifatidis is a Swedish novelist and poet of Greek descent. That is all I know. He has a large body of work, but very little of it is translated into English (or German, for that matter). Masters and Peasants, the English translation of his novel about WWII Greece, originally published in 1973 as Bönder och Herrar, isn’t currently in print. It’s certainly worth reprinting, it’s a good book. Kallifatidis writes a novel that appears to be written in a specific genre – a tale of the strange behaviors of villagers (think Clochemerle), but is set against a dark background: the German occupation of Greece. It starts with the dark image of someone hanging themselves on a fig tree, but goes on to tell a story that is often comical enough to make you laugh. Kallifatidis works with set-pieces that we all know from novels like this. There’s the mayor, the village priest, the local baker, stupid arguments about territories, pretty girls, the village idiot and many more. These parts are written in a deadpan tone that suits the subject very well. The town of Ialos, where it all takes place, couldn’t be more typical of the genre. A bare mountain with a lonely fig tree behind it, a valley before it, and a strange, neverending obsession with the size and quality of male genitals and death.

It’s very funny, but at the same time, the village is occupied by the German army and as time progresses, things get increasingly worse until a public execution drives many of the town’s men into the mountains to join the resistance. Kallifatidis never changes his tone, and in the way the darkness of history mingles with the elements of the comic bucolic novel Masters and Peasants sometimes resembles Roberto Benigni’s movie La vita è bella. Kallifatidis never really gets nasty except for the handful of remarks reserved for post-war Greece, where he allows his voice to include sharp, acidic takedowns of the fascist continuities in Greece after the war, as well as agreements of the Papandreou government to “sell Greece to the English.” He never dwells on the horrors of war, and the awful things that people do to each other. He mentions them, and moves on, opting to give a sense of how everything coheres rather than breathless condemnation. Ultimately, not all the bad people in the novel are Germans. Many are Greek, many are villagers, and many terrors preceded the German invasion. It’s an interesting, solid book, and I find it deplorable how little of Kallifatidis’s work is available in translation.

Like many of the classic tales of village stupidities, Kallifatidis’s village is full of cruel, stupid people. Cruel, stupid and insecure. Unwilling to learn, scared of change and resentful towards outsiders. Kallifatidis’s novel is full of repetitions, narrative circles. We learn of a person, a thing, an event and then we keep coming back to it until we come back to its chronological end point, which is often death. Thus, on page one, we learn that the village confectioner had hung himself on the fig tree because rumors were going around about his sexuality. People, for stupid reasons, assumed he was gay, and used this rumor as a weapon. When he left the village to learn how to make sweets, it didn’t help, because sweets are, of course, the gayest of foods and the city he learned his trade was the gayest of Greek cities. So upon his return, married with children now, they persecuted him. First by dropping hints like “so you really like to make sweets, huh.” and later, by trying to have him arrested or kicked out until eventually he went to his death, “proving” to the village his sexual inclination. We begin the novel with his suicide and his fate is alluded to again and again until we are explained what happened to him in more detail towards the end of the book. His death functions to contextualize the cruelties under German occupation.

It’s thus no surprise that a group of Greek youths, recruited by the Germans, one night goes out and rapes a young Jewish girl. The rape and the extended tale of suicide come near the end of the book. They help us see the genre of village follies as what it is: the sometimes inhuman mob mentality that small towns and villages easily develop. Kallifatidis goes to greath lengths in between to explain to us the idiosyncrasies of the village. There’s a priest who is an alcoholic womanizer, there’s the obsession with cocks (there’s a whole taxonomy of cock sizes), and the mayor, who has the largest penis in the village (nobody really knows, but he’s the leader and leaders should have large penises, is the village logic), nicknamed the crown prince. There’s a butcher who kills his animals by straddling them, an act that arouses him and the women watching. The obsession with male genitals is part of a kind of insecurity that ends up driving the confectioner to his death, and the general almost hysterical discourse on sex surely contributed to the rape.

There is a great deal of darkness in the book, but Kallifatidis serves it on a platter of light deadpan narratives of village stories. In doing so, he hews so close to generic conventions that the novel sometimes seems almost banal in its humor – until, that is, tragedies invade it. There is always a little death in these books, but the end of Masters and Peasants is filled with death, as all the narrative strands converge towards the end of the war, with villagers dead, in Dachau or otherwise aggrieved. At the same time, Kallifatidis does not give us a clean ending either: the book is full of comments on the awful post-war period, and the author himself has made his life experience part of the book. Not only does the book end on “I am one of the children.” but the introduction to the novel makes clear that this is essentially an autobiographical project: “neither the town nor the people are fictional” and explains that the book is called a novel “simply because what I present here is my own picture of reality and not reality itself.” This is deeply curious and I’m not sure I’ve encountered a disclaimer quite like this.

Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of the book is its connection to reality. And by this I am referring to two distinct aspects. One is linguistic, the other generic. Linguistically, it’s fascinating that this book was written in Swedish, but with its references and the introduction, it reads utterly Greek, not to mention the folksy tone of the whole thing. But I am not reading it in Swedish either, I am reading it in English, a process which has completely wiped away the Swedish element of the book and left me only with the Greek. Yes, some awkwardnesses in the translation make me suspect Swedish constructions and holdovers, but my Swedish isn’t good enough to figure these out. So for all intents and purposes, this reads and feels like a Greek book which is an odd feeling. And this sort of brings us to the second part of this. Many countries have their own style of crude village humor, often with clearly recognizable differences. I don’t know the Swedish genre well enough to know whether Kallifatides, in his Swedish text, has used that parameter rather than offer a typically Greek genre of tale. All of these are differences that completely vanish in the translation, where all we know is we are reading a translation, and this is a story about a Greek village.

And there is another part to this generic thought – the brief introduction clearly suggests that the text is supposed to be read as intensely personal. Nothing has been changed, and the reason the book isn’t a memoir but a novel is not because of a distancing fictional device, but really the exact opposite: because the author feels his own perception may have warped reality. in short, it’s too personal. But the book itself never reads like a personal or real story. Disregarding some unique touches, most of it feels incredibly generic – and I don’t mean this in a bad way. It’s just that the book appears to be constructed with generic parameters. If the introduction didn’t exist, I would never assume there to be a personal element to the book. Don’t be absurd! Have you ever considered Clochemerle to be some confessional story from the French province? Of course not! It’s the friction between the novel and its introduction that’s so interesting.

I wonder whether this has something to do with witnessing and speech – I think it is entirely possible to read Masters and Peasants as a text that uses generic markers to facilitate personal speech. I mean, it is explicitly framed as Kallifatides finding his voice, finding the guts to write about his past. The two-sentence declaimer in the introduction is not unlike the worries about representation and reality that pervade, say, Jorge Semprún’s work, but the text is free from epistemological troubles and doubts. It is full of declarations, about the past and human nature, but the text’s language is the impersonal language of genre deadpan. I think there’s a way to read this use of genre as a tool to question narrative in itself. Of course, a better clue to how the book works would be to read Kallifatides’s other books from the period, but publishers have been very negligent in translating a writer who seems to be very accessible.

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